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Of Fire and Ginger | A personal account of Batek shamanism

I’m lying in a small, stilted hut of split bamboo, staring upward at a low roof of thatched jungle palm. The thick rows of neatly tied leaves are barely perceptible in the gathering dark. A rough mat of woven fibre presses into the skin of my back, and from the forest outside the dying light of sunset illuminates a dusty interior, falling in long rays between the faces staring down at me. I can make out little more than silhouettes: an assembly of dark brown eyes and flowing flower headdresses; wrinkled faces; children’s faces; strong adult faces: men and women. They fill the doorway and block out what little of the dusk glow still remains.


This is part of a larger series of articles on the Batek expedition




By my head sits Amem, a young woman of the tribe, surrounded by children who crowd around on top of one another, filling the small bamboo floor. Her tightly curled hair shines iridescent in the last golden rays, like polished ebony or black marble. To my right, shrouded in the shadows of the dwelling’s darkest corner, sit the shaman and his wife. He’s easily the oldest man of the village—ancient; sunken eyes in a kindly face; a wizened, wrinkled skeleton of a figure. I’d seen him only briefly before, walking spider-like, bent over a stick, wearing only a faded blue-and-white chequered sarong, folded and wrapped as a loincloth.

Now he squatted deep, crouching low over the dying fire. Sinewed limbs and wrinkled skin were cast with the dancing light of glowing embers. The smell of Batek sacred resin was in the air: the old man cut pieces from a ball with his machete, feeding it to the fire. Its sweetness mixed with the scent of wood smoke and the musty oldness of the hut. I looked around. It was a simple scene—the customary fire and ashes on a sheet of corrugated metal; a typical pile of bedding and sarongs; and an old bamboo blowpipe placed reverently in the corner—it didn’t look like it had been touched for years. In the gloom, above the fire, were hung a pair of ancient Y-fronts over a rattan vine. Simple effects of a modest lifestyle.

Right now though, the hut was transformed. Shadows danced across the bamboo walls, lit only by the dying fire and the pallid yellow glow of a few cheap electric torches. Outside the light of a full moon searched for gaps in the walls. A hum of voices and whispered conversation; an atmosphere of excitement and expectation. Most of the village was there for the spectacle, laughing and joking in typical Batek fashion. Although amidst the cackles of the old women and the children’s excited giggles, I sensed a slight air of awe amongst them.

The old man’s wife scraped some embers from the fire onto a trowel blade, and placed them by my side. The shaman muttered in Batek under his breath, and thumped his clasped fist to his chest three times. He took a handful of the cooling embers and cradled them in both hands, raising them to his face. The children smiled down at me. I was glad they were there—it was strangely reassuring. Turning, the old man opened his hands towards me. ‘Uff’—he blew across the contents of his cupped fists, flooding my face with scented smoke and ash.

Batek tribe Malaysia

One of the Bidan—a village elder—dries leaves for weaving inside her house

The ceremony is to free me from the Jin, an evil spirit that, according to the old shaman, is cooking me over his fire, roasting and eating me piece by piece. In medical terms, four months ago I contracted leptospirosis, a waterborne disease, most likely from the water of the village spring, or perhaps through the ever-present leech bites while wading barefoot along jungle rivers on foraging expeditions. In either case it got serious, and within days I was barely conscious, unable to stand and rushed to hospital.

There I was diagnosed, and my failing kidney recovered only just in time. Penicillin had saved yet another life. Since then I’d been working in Indonesia, slowly recovering and trying to get back into training again. But it wasn’t working. Freediving was proving impossible and I was exhausted. My immune system was down and I contracted infection after infection; the wet-season of the tropics was proving too much for my compromised body. I made the decision to go back to the Batek, the community I knew and loved: a final farewell before I returned to England.

On return I learnt that the shaman had dreamt of my condition—an impressive feat considering he knew nothing of its persistence—and insisted, through various other individuals, that I would not recover without a healing ritual. I thought little of it, not really knowing how to respond, and spent the days enjoying time with old friends: swimming in the rivers and fishing in the jungle.

But it hadn’t been forgotten, and on my final evening it confronted me unawares. I’d been in the jungle with the children that day, revisiting an old cave overhang I’d been to months earlier. Meanwhile, the women had been busy, and by the time we returned to the village, many were in full flower headdress; leaves and petals flowed in many shapes and colours from their tightly-curled black hair. Two of the elder women, Calzon and Empeng, came separately to talk to me of my illness, the flowers, and explain to me that the women’s efforts were to call the gods for my healing. My understanding was limited; the Bidan—Batek tribal elders—rarely slow their speech, and I can catch little, but with the help of a young girl I understood their gist.

Just as we were finishing dinner—the typical rice, fish and jungle vegetables—a crowd of the younger women and children gathered in the doorway. They summoned me to follow. Amem took me by the arm and led me up through the village. She wouldn’t tell me where we were walking, other than a throaty ‘ba-ohgn’—‘there’. Unenlightening. As we went, a large gathering began to follow, peeling off from porches and sitting shelters until we must have had thirty or more in our wake. Barefeet padded on the hard-packed earth, and flower-adorned heads bobbed through the evening light. And so it was, in the gathering dusk, that we arrived at the shaman’s hut in the centre of the village.

Batek tribe Malaysia

The shaman’s hut in the centre of the village


The old man looked upwards, and the flickering light of the fire cast deep shadows across his already furrowed features. He passed the machete to Amem, who began to pound wild ginger root against a log of firewood. Named olongby the Batek, the root of ginger is believed to possess all manner of magical healing properties, and had been gathered in the jungle that day.

He reached over and held my head in both hands, muttering and bowing his own in concentration. Long, sinewed fingers ran lightly across my face and arms: firm, deliberate strokes to drive the spirit out through my hands and face. After each he cupped his hands to his mouth and blew with a deliberate ‘uff’ of breath. ‘Uff’, ‘uff’; many times; more wood ash and whispered chanting. Amem began to rub the pounded ginger across my face and chest, down my arms and over my torso. At my feet, Nani did the same, staining my legs and feet a pale yellow.

The old shaman collected a final grasp of smoke and ashes from the smouldering embers, lifted them over me, and with the same ‘uff’ blew them across my face and chest. His wife muttered in low tones behind him, and he handed Amem a necklace. She placed it gently around my neck as I sat up, reaching to my shoulder to pull the pendant back to centre. Two crudely shaped, half-spheres of bonglae, a variety of ginger, lay at the dip of my chest. She had carved it earlier that day—as much a healing amulet as a token to remind me of the Batek. And then suddenly it was done, and the crowd dispersed back into the village below, melting into the moonlight.

The old man spoke to me, in surprisingly clear and understandable Batek—he told me to come back, and not to forget his people. There was tangible emotion and meaning in his words—he meant it. ‘Habis’, and we left the old man and his wife to their night.

Choked with emotion, I walked back with those remaining to the raised shelter at the front of the village. Children gathered alongside, grasping my hands and arms. ‘Billeugh pam wayg-a?’ Amem whispered to me—‘when will you come back?’. I tell her that it may be a long time, but one day, I will. ‘Yem sinet’ came the quiet reply, with a tone of trustful certainty. ‘I know’.

Many of the others had already returned to the shelter, and a crowd was waiting to see me off: all the faces and characters that had become family. Old Empeng motioned to the necklace, as if to suggest that now everything will be just fine. Tepi tells me not to forget them.

There is no word for goodbye in Batek. I can only say ‘sa seine’—‘see you soon’. I try to make eye contact with as many as possible, A, Besa, Amem and Bose; and the women who’ve taught me and fed me. The little girls Eahan and Ina cling to me as if to prevent my leaving, and I give a rough handshake to Lee, the twelve-year-old boy who’s taught me so much. As I get in the car and we pull away, I glance across the faces in the darkness. Faces of familiarity, of trust, kindness and family. I’ve received more from these people than I could ever have imagined—there will always be a place for me here.

That night I go to bed but cannot sleep. Thought’s whir in my head, of the Batek and those last few moments in the moonlight. Later I will wake up to them calling my name in dreams. I struggle to understand how these people have affected me so deeply.

Batek tribe Malaysia

Faces of the Batek


I’m sitting on the plane. It’s about twenty-four hours since I left the village. It’s funny, I’ve never experienced this depth of emotion in leaving a place before. The people and the way of life; a feeling of true belonging. I think a part of me will always be there.

It already seems far off, like a dream. Time and meaning passes differently in that village, and I don’t want to lose that state of being: the moments; the memories; the magic and purity. Yet every minute is another step away and the end of the dream, and I know that society at home will break it altogether, just as breathing breaks the meditative spell of the freedive. In some ways I feel like I’m being torn apart.

I turn the necklace over in my hands: two half spheres of crudely-shaped ginger root, strung on yellow-stained twine. It acts as a memory, and way to put myself back in that consciousness; it is a token of perspective and the aliveness of the Batek way of life. The scratching discomfort of its edges on my skin are a constant trigger to remind me of what matters in life; to seek out challenge and the wilderness; to live alive. It’s already beginning to dry out and change shape; it almost feels symbolic of my leaving. The present has shrivelled, but the connection is still there by a thread and memory: a deeply personal and immersive memory that will always be a part of my being.

I know I will return.

Batek tribe

A head of flowers—homage to the forest gods


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